30 August 2015

Katrina 10: Faith at Work - A Theological Travelogue

James 1:17-27; 2:14-18, 26

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost/ 30th August 2015

“NEW ORLEANS — It is a wonder that any of it is [there] at all: The scattered faithful gathering into Beulah Land Baptist Church on a Sunday morning in the Lower Ninth Ward. The men on stoops in Mid-City swapping gossip in the August dusk. The brass band in Tremé, the lawyers in Lakeview, the new homeowners in Pontchartrain Park.
"On Aug. 29, 2005, it all seemed lost. Four-fifths of the city lay submerged as residents frantically signaled for help from their rooftops and thousands were stranded at the Superdome, a congregation of the desperate and poor. From the moment the storm surge of Hurricane Katrina dismantled a fatally defective levee system, New Orleans became a global symbol of American dysfunction and government negligence. At every level and in every duty, from engineering to social policy to basic logistics, there were revelations of malfunction and failure before, during, and after Katrina.
"Ten years later, it is not exactly right to say that New Orleans is back. The city did not return, not as it was.
"It is, first of all, without the more than 1,400 people who died here, and the thousands who are now making their lives someplace else. As of 2013, there were nearly 100,000 fewer black residents than in 2000, their absences falling equally across income levels. The white population decreased by about 11,000, but it is wealthier.”
This is how The New York Times described the situation in New Orleans this week.
President Obama returned to New Orleans on Thursday.  He went house to house in the Tremé, one of the oldest African American communities in the United States and had lunch at Willie Mae’s Scotch House.  Then he went to the Lower Ninth Ward.  In a speech given at the opening of a new $20.5 million community center, President Obama said, "Not long ago, our gathering here in the Lower 9th might have seemed unlikely." "But today, this new community center stands as a symbol of the extraordinary resilience of this city and its people, of the entire Gulf Coast, indeed, of the United States of America. You are an example of what's possible when, in the face of tragedy and hardship, good people come together to lend a hand, and to build a better future."  Former President George W. Bush was in New Orleans on Friday; former President Bill Clinton gave a rousing address at the “Power of Community” service Saturday evening.
I was in New Orleans this past week to share in some of the commemorations of the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, commemorations often overlooked by the press.  It must not be forgotten that the faith community played a critical, essential, even pivotal role in the recovery and rebuilding of New Orleans.  That’s why I was in New Orleans, to attend an event giving thanks to Christian, Jewish, and Islamic faith-based organizations for their invaluable and irreplaceable contributions to the rebuilding of New Orleans.
On Thursday and Friday I participated in the Katrina 10: Faith at Work events.  There was a dinner Thursday evening—a dinner of thanksgiving for many of the faith-based groups that had a role in the recovery and rebuilding of New Orleans.  It was held at St. Mary of the Angels Roman Catholic Church Community Center in the Lower Ninth Ward, a facility which has been largely–but not fully–renovated from the devastation of Katrina. Nearly 300 representatives from an array of local and national faith-based organizations were fed a dinner of jambalaya and bread pudding and thanked for their dedication and commitment to the people of New Orleans. A key player in Faith at Work was Project Homecoming, which was formed by the Presbytery of South Louisiana and received funds from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA).  Laurie Kraus, PDA coordinator, flew in from Louisville, along with Sara Lisherness, director of the Compassion, Peace and Justice Ministry, of the PCUSA, Louisville.

There was an amazing spirit in the place.  The Rev. David Myers, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, appointed by President Obama, offered words of appreciation.  Wendy Spencer, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that administers AmeriCorps, also thanked the faith community.  She wasn’t originally on the program, but when she heard about this event she made a point of being there to offer her gratitude and appreciation. And we had not one, but two amazing gospel choirs. 

We heard stories of grace and gratitude from the people that lived through Katrina, especially in the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish.  People gave thanks to God.  People who lost everything, but gained something else in return, something they didn’t think they had or had lost long ago, and that was their faith and trust in God.  There are, no doubt, people who lost their faith because of Katrina.  But there’s also the story of people who lost a lot and suffered a lot, but found something new from out of the ordeal.

On Friday there was a press conference at the Katrina 10 Media Center.  Muslim, Lutheran, and Presbyterian relief agency representatives gathered to share stories and lessons learned from their experience in the Katrina recovery effort.  It was profound, inspiring…A Decade of Putting Faith to Work.

As I shared with many folks in New Orleans, I’m grateful for Catonsville Presbyterian Church’s generous support of the recovery efforts.  CPC contributed more than $37,000: $11,000 was collected right after Katrina and sent to PDA and Project Homecoming received more than $25,000.  You’ll recall that we tithed a portion of our capital campaign in 2008, and with these funds we helped to rebuild a home in New Orleans.  CPC’s work was recognized on Thursday evening. 

It’s fitting that the lectionary for this week is from James: faith without works is dead or of little use.  “What good is it…if you say you have faith but do not have works?” (James 2:14).  Belief needs to be embodied.  Faith needs to be enacted.  If our faith, our beliefs, our religious outlook doesn’t help to make a positive difference in the world, if it doesn’t work to alleviate human pain and suffering, if it doesn’t help to liberate people, and provide a source of healing in the world among all God’s children, then what good is it?  Faith must be put to work.

Dave Eggers, author of Zeitoun, an award-winning account of a family living in post-Katrina New Orleans has two sentences in his book that beautifully captures what I’m talking about.  He writes, “What is building, and rebuilding and rebuilding again, but an act of faith? …[For], there is no faith like the faith of a builder of homes in coastal Louisiana.”[1]

What New Orleans has accomplished in the past decade is remarkable. Some things there are better now than before Katrina:  healthcare, restaurants/tourism (there are more restaurants in New Orleans now than before Katrina), new infrastructure, and new public transportation options, including expanded streetcars.  It’s a city of innovation and development. And they’ve made enormous strides in education reform.  For example, the City’s graduation rate has grown from 54% to 73%, with a 65% African-American male graduation rate, which is above the national average of 59%. City planners are working with experts from Holland, learning how to live with (rising) water.  The racial divide, however, is still great. Some of the poorest parts of the City have not recovered and the reasons are undeniably complex.More than 175,000 black residents left New Orleans in the year after the storm; more than 75,000 never came back.  Meanwhile, the non-Hispanic white population has nearly returned to its pre-storm total, and the Hispanic population, though still small compared with other Southern cities, has grown by more than 30 percent. Together, the trends have pushed the African-American share of the population down to 59 percent in 2013, from 66 percent in 2005.”[2]

After the press conference on Friday, we went over to the Gentilly neighborhood, to the site of the London Avenue Canal breech, a thirty-foot break that released thousands of gallons of water into the city. This was one of close to fifty places where the levees broke. We attended the dedication of a Levee Exhibition and Garden Memorial for the victims on the site, built on the foundation of a brick house that was completely washed away.  We placed flowers in memory of the victims and looked up toward the new, stronger levee wall.  Alongside this site is an abandoned house with an enormous hole through its roof, evidence that someone was trapped in its attic as the water filled the house below.  Rescuers tore open a hole in the roof but to no avail; they found a resident dead inside.  

We walked across the street to attend Project Homecoming’s groundbreaking of what will be twelve new homes in twelve months.

Amazing Grace.  The hymn is sometimes overplayed, overused.  But there’s something about that hymn tune, evoking God’s amazing grace that beautifully captures the amazingness of grace.  One of the gospel choirs sang it on Thursday evening—from the heart, with deep conviction, joy, and gratitude.  I heard it everywhere in the French Quarter: sung by a soloist in Jackson Square in front of St. Louis Cathedral, played on a clarinet near Bourbon Street, played by a brass band in Jackson Square, even a lone bagpiper perched on a levee along the Mississippi.  I heard less “When the Saints Go Marching In” on this trip and more “Amazing Grace.”  On Friday evening we attended the K10 NOLA Honors Awards ceremony at the Saenger Theatre, hosted by Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr.  It was a stirring tribute to all the people and organizations and corporations and countries that played a role in the city’s recovery and rebuilding.  It was striking that at the beginning of the program, before any words were said, we heard a trombone soloist playing “Amazing Grace.” 

Grace at work, embodied in the lives of God’s children.  Faith at work.  Faith getting to work. Faith making a difference in the world.  The work of the faith community transformed the City of New Orleans.  But consider the thousands, millions of volunteers that went to New Orleans from all over the country, who helped with the recovery effort, who helped to rebuild the lives and communities washed away by the flood waters, and consider all the conversations, the friendships forged, the meals shared, the life-changing experiences, and then consider all those volunteers that then left New Orleans and returned to their hometowns and churches as changed people, how their  experience there changed their lives, altered the direction of their lives.  I know at least one person (from Baltimore Presbytery) who volunteered for PDA, lived in Mississippi and Louisiana, eventually felt called to ministry, went to Princeton Seminary, and is now a minister serving an urban church in St. Louis.  Consider all the people arriving in New Orleans from across the theological divides of the church, liberals and conservatives, people who went to New Orleans assuming that theological liberals have nothing in common with theological conservatives and vice and versa, and discovering as they worked together rebuilding lives, swinging a hammer, wielding a shovel, and sharing meals together and discovering that theological ideas and labels and political ideologies are secondary and irrelevant and even idolatrous when it comes to actually doing the work of the Lord. Our theological labels, categories, ideologies, camps separate us from one another and hinder kingdom work.

At the press conference on Friday, a PDA volunteer, Jane Stuart Els from Dallas, participated in the panel discussion and reflected on what it was like for her to work in the recovery of New Orleans. She said she grew up hearing a lot of talk about the Kingdom of God but wasn’t exactly sure what that looked like, other than a “heavenly” vision of angels in “white robes and halos.” As a regular volunteer worker, particularly at the PDA village that was in Purlington, Mississippi, (where Paul Patterson, Jr. spent a transformative week several years ago), she eventually traded the white robes and halos for a different vision: “sheet rock dust and paint smeared on your face. That’s what the Kingdom looks like” Jane said.  She realized that she was surrounded by the kingdom of God.  It was all around her. 

And it’s all around us.  We get glimpses of the Kingdom. It’s already here…in New Orleans, along the Gulf Coast or Baltimore or Catonsville—whenever faith is at work, transforming the world, transforming the lives of God's people.

[1] Dave Eggers, Zeitoun (Vintage, 2010).
[2] Ben Casselman, “Katrina Washed Away New Orleans’s Black Middle Class,” August 24, 2015, FiveThirtyEight.

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